CARACAS, Venezuela – Invoking Christ and Castro as his socialist models, President Hugo Chavez began his third term Wednesday by declaring that socialism, not capitalism, is the only way forward for Venezuela and the world.
His first stop: Nicaragua, where leftist ally Daniel Ortega was returning to power with his own inauguration hours later. Chavez can now count on remaining president until 2013 — or later if he gets his way with a constitutional amendment allowing him to run again.
At the apex of a resurgent Latin American left, Chavez has been emboldened to make more radical changes at home after winning re-election with 63 percent of the vote, his widest margin ever.
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His next moves include nationalizing electrical and telecommunications companies, forming a commission to oversee constitutional reforms and asking the National Assembly, now entirely controlled by his supporters, to allow him to enact "revolutionary laws" by presidential decree.
His right hand raised Wednesday, Chavez declared in words reminiscent of Fidel Castro's famous call-to-arms: "Fatherland, socialism or death — I swear it." He also alluded to Jesus: "I swear by Christ — the greatest socialist in history."
In a speech, he said the central aim of his term will be "to build Venezuelan socialism."
"I don't have the slightest doubt that is the only path to the redemption of our peoples, the salvation of our fatherland," Chavez told lawmakers to applause.
Chavez's re-election capped a series of Latin American presidential votes, and his closest ideological allies were all gathering Wednesday in Managua. Also on Ortega's guest list were Ecuador's Rafael Correa and Bolivia's Evo Morales. Acting Cuban leader Raul Castro sent a high-level delegation.
Chavez said a commission was being assembled to consider constitutional reforms to be decided in a popular referendum, including one allowing "indefinite re-election" by doing away with presidential term limits that bar him from running again in 2012.
"The important thing is that the people will make the decision, because nothing can be done without that here," Chavez said, dismissing criticism that he is becoming authoritarian or trying to change Venezuela into something like Castro's Cuba.
Displaying blunt confidence during his speech, Chavez scolded leaders of the Roman Catholic Church and the Organization of American States for criticizing his decision not to renew the license of an opposition-aligned television station.
Turning to Venezuela's top Catholic prelate, Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, Chavez said he could not understand why the church supported Radio Caracas Television, which Chavez accuses of subversive activities aimed at ousting him.
"Mr. Cardinal," Chavez said, "the state respects the church. The church should respect the state. I wouldn't like to return to the times of confrontation with Venezuelan bishops, but it's not up to me. It's up to the Venezuelan bishops."
With oil profits booming and his popularity high, Chavez seems to be in step with many Venezuelans even as spooked investors rushed to sell off Venezuelan stocks in companies subject to his nationalization plans.
Chavez called that a knee-jerk overreaction, and shares in Venezuela's leading telephone company rebounded as the congressional finance chief assured reporters Wednesday that the government will negotiate compensation to the affected companies.
He also visited the tomb of Simon Bolivar, the South American independence hero and inspiration for his "Bolivarian Revolution," and blew kisses to supporters tossing rose petals at his open car. Before flying to Nicaragua, the former paratroop commander also watched a military parade with Russian-made Sukhoi fighter jets thundering overhead.
Chavez said he is crafting a new sort of "21st century socialism" for Venezuela. Critics say it is starting to look like old-fashioned totalitarianism by a leader obsessed with power.
"They want to nationalize everything. This is the beginning," said Marisela Leon, a 47-year-old engineer who said she would like to leave Venezuela because she sees difficult times ahead.
But many of Chavez's largely poor and working class supporters remain optimistic. Miguel Angel Martinez, a 52-year-old street vendor, said the president "has dedicated himself to studying communist, socialist and democratic models and has taken the best of those models."
An Associated Press-Ipsos poll three weeks before his re-election found 62 percent support for nationalizing companies when in the national interest. But the poll also found 84 percent said they oppose adopting a political system like Cuba's, despite Chavez's reverence for Castro.
And while Chavez denies trying to adopt Cuba's system, he ended his inaugural speech Wednesday with Castro's signature phrase: "Socialism or death! We shall prevail!"
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